Sit not down until you have washed.
Undo your belt a little if it will make you more comfortable; because doing this during the meal is bad manners.
When you wipe your hands clean, put good thoughts forward in your mind, for it doesn’t do to come to dinner sad, and thus make others sad.
Once you sit place your hands neatly on the table; not on your trencher, and not around your belly.
Don’t shift your buttocks left and right as if to let off some blast. Sit neatly and still.
Any gobbit that cannot be taken easily with the hand, take it on your trencher.
Don’t wipe your fingers on your clothes; use the napkin or the ‘board cloth’.
If someone is ill mannered by ignorance, let it pass rather than point it out.
– Desiderius Erasmus, De Civitate, 1534
Named for their location of writing, Eltham Palace, the Eltham Ordinances were a set of rules which governed the purchasing of food, as well as its distribution and storage throughout the palaces. To us, they’re a handy guide to what the Tudors would have eaten and drank at court.
The responsibility for implementing these rules fell on the Lord Steward, who was chosen from nobility to become a man of great influence and power. Domestic services, regulation of the estate and fuel supply were also the responsibility of the Lord Steward.
The Eltham Ordinances also regulated the protocol involved in court ceremonies, such as the manner in which food was taken to the table and the way in which it was presented.
Interestingly, for regular meals taking place outside of major celebratory and state occasions, Henry VIII generally ate his meals in his own private lodgings, separate from the rest of the court who all ate together. Where you ate your meals came entirely down to rank, with dining areas ranging from the Great Watching Chambers to the Great Hall, kitchens to private lodgings. Responsibility for dining arrangements in state rooms fell on the Lord Chamberlain, who reviewed plans drawn up in the ‘Bouche of Court’ to grant each named member of court a suitable allowance for their two meals, along with their daily ration of wine, candles, firewood, beer and bread.
By 1526, the Great Hall was the dining area for about 600 courtiers, including grooms, general court servants and guards. This number was so large that they had to be fed in two massive sittings, with each meal consisting of two courses served in dishes to be shared between four people known as messes. The most senior men at the table were given the responsibility to serve these messes.
The more favoured courtiers and those of higher status ate away from the Great Hall, in the Great Watching Chamber. Available to them was a greater variety of dishes of a higher standard.
‘to see such dishes and smell the sweet odour, and nothing to taste, is utter displeasure’.
– Alexander Barclay (poet)
Needless to say, Henry VIII would be found at the top of the dining hierarchy. At formal meals, the king would be served separately from the rest of his courtiers, in his Presence Chamber. His arrival was announced by trumpeters before he sat down on a covered table under the canopy of state, facing the rest of his diners. He was supplied with a silver trencher, or plate, from which he would eat with a knife and spoon, along with a manchet, or bread roll, which was wrapped in a napkin.
The king’s hands were then washed in scented water by a servant known as a ‘sewer’, preparing him for the grand array of foodstuffs with which he would be presented.
Unlike his courtiers who had to eat with a spoon, a knife or their hands, the king was allowed to eat with a fork. The plates used at that time more closely resembled today’s chopping boards than dinner plates. Rather than placing the napkin on the lap as we do today, napkins would be draped across the left shoulder. Unsurprisingly, no fists or elbows were to rest on the table. While the diners were allowed to wipe their noses on their sleeves, nose picking and head scratching were absolutely forbidden. The experience of eating in a Tudor court, then, was nothing like today’s depiction of gorging and throwing leftovers over shoulders. King Henry VIII was, in fact, a particularly tidy eater.
At Hampton Court, there would have been around 230 servants who were entitled to rations, but not to dining in the Great Hall. Instead, they would have eaten in their own lodgings or in the kitchens, where many of them both worked and lived. Importantly, only men were allowed to work in the kitchens, as the work was considered too hot and hectic, and the hours too long for their female counterparts. Although the work was tough, the men were still granted time to relax at the end of the day. Life as a member of kitchen staff was much more comfortable than that of a land labourer, with benefits including clothing, food and lodgings.
What, then, did the servants eat? Notably, even the poorest members of society in England often ate better than their continental counterparts.
The English, being great epicures and very avaricious by nature, indulge in the most delicate fare themselves and give their households the coarsest bread and beer and cold meat baked on Sunday for the week, which, however, they allow them in great abundance.
The availability of food to the lower classes depended on that year’s harvest – a good harvest meant that they would get much more food than they would in a bad harvest. At court, even those at the bottom of the ranks were entitled to a daily allowance of food, accessing the incredible foods made available in the grand kitchens of Hampton Court.